I don’t know whether any of you are fans of The Borgias television series which stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI. I’m a big fan and have seen most of the episodes either in French or in English. In the first episode, which I saw the last week (I don’t always get to watch the series in chronological order), Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is busy bribing the other cardinals to get their vote for the election of the new pope. After Rodrigo becomes pope and starts poisoning his enemies, he has to pass a crucial test for the papacy.
When I saw this scene at the end of episode 1, I thought it was a joke. The Pope is invited to sit on a sort of wooden seat with a hole in the middle while his cardinals look on. A servant brings a bowl of water and my first impression was that he was going to wash the Pope’s feet, but no, the servant gropes the pope’s undercarriage and then exclaims in a loud voice: “habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes” meaning he has two well-hung testicles.
I couldn’t believe they were checking to make sure the pope was a man and had not been castrated heaven forbid. It appears that the test was introduced after Pope Joan’s ascension to the papacy in the 9th century. A German woman, Agnes, managed to get herself elected as “Pope John”. Her subterfuge was only learned when she gave birth in a procession to St John Lateran between the Colosseum and the San Clemente Basilica in Rome.
It is believed that the test is still employed today. Men who had deliberately castrated themselves were not acceptable as good pope material, but those who had been involuntarily castrated were acceptable.
The reference for this historical nugget is Alain Boureau’s “The Myth of Pope Joan”. The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the masculinity test were collected together in 1600 by the German scholar Johann Wolf in his book: “Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter.”
This week I am finishing up my screenplay “Johnny Reb in Montreal” about the manhunt across the province of Quebec of Lt Bennett Young and his Confederate soldier friends. This is the story of the St. Albans, Vermont raid and the trial in Montreal of the Confederate raiders. After being released from the Pied-du-Courant prison in Montreal in December 1864, the lieutenant and his men were re-arrested just before Christmas on the border with New Brunswick.
Take a look at this map of the Central Vermont Railroad in 1879. It’s quite amazing the rail network that existed in Quebec at the time thanks to the Grand Trunk Railway Company. For instance, you could travel from Portland, Maine through Montreal all the way to Sarnia, Ontario in the 1860s. The Portland track was built to give Montreal access to a seaport during the long winter months when the St. Lawrence River was frozen up. You could take a train from just about anywhere in the Eastern Townships to Montreal and east to Rivière-du-Loup and south through Vermont to New York or Boston or west to Buffalo. Of course, there was no railway to Quebec City or on to Halifax until much later. These were mainly narrow track railways and the number of rail companies is amazing.
While I was doing my research for the screenplay, I had to take into account all the travel possibilities available to the lieutenant at the time. One author describes George Brown, the owner of the Globe Newspaper and one of the fathers of the Canadian Confederation, returning to Toronto from London after meeting with British Prime Minister Palmerston. After a two-week transatlantic voyage, Brown arrived in New York City and the following day was back in Toronto. I asked myself whether this was possible at the time. Today, it would not be possible by train, but only by air. In 1865, Brown could have taken the train from New York to the top of the state and then gone west to Buffalo which was connected to Windsor and Toronto. Or he could have chosen to go north through Montreal and then west. The Victoria Bridge in Montreal had been built in 1859 to carry the passenger trains across the river.
When you ponder public transportation in and around Montreal today, there has been little or no improvement since 1860. Remember they had horsecars (horse-drawn tramways) in Montreal at the time which were precursors of the motorized streetcars that came later. You could travel just about anywhere by train. It is not surprising that Quebeckers fell in love with the Maine seaside since you could take a train to Portland and on to Old Orchard and other seaside ports, travelling through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
In the summer of 1485, at the start of the reign of Henry VII, a previously unseen disease started to spread across England. It was believed that it was brought to England by French mercenaries in Henry Tudor’s army. Henry Tudor arrived in London shortly after the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 and the ‘sweating sickness’ was first reported there less than three weeks later. It ran rampant through London, killing thousands and striking panic in the population. One of the most terrifying features of the disease was the speed with which it could kill. Some of you may remember the moving scene in Hilary Mantel’s novel and the television drama mini-series, Wolf Hall, when the disease struck the family of Thomas Cromwell. He returns home to find his wife and two young daughters are dead hours after catching the disease.
The cholera epidemic of 1832 was similar to the “English sweat” that afflicted Londoners and Europeans during the time of the Tudors. People were terrified by the horrific symptoms which seemed to afflict victims instantly. People caught the bug in the morning and were declared dead by supper time. There was no known cure for cholera and the sense of panic among the population was palpable. When our loved ones are struck down by illness within hours, we lose our heads and any rational sense of order. Fear leads to panic and the breakdown of society. Family members turned against family members, friends against friends, and soon everyone was out for themselves. Cholera victims were simply abandoned on the roads, and wagons were sent around to collect the bodies and bury them in cholera pits. The population lived in absolute fear of the epidemic and normal rules no longer applied.
The collapse of society often happens in cases of natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, etc. What do people do when things start falling apart? They revert to primal behaviour, every man for himself. That’s the theme of The Walking Dead. At least that’s the theory, but it is not always true. Remember the movie Lord of the Flies based on the novel by William Golding back in 1954 about a group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. It presents a very bleak view of mankind, returning to nature. The boys form into groups and three boys die as a result before a British naval officer arrives on the island and saves them. The story was loosely based on a real adventure involving several young Tongan boys stranded on an island in the Pacific and things didn’t turn out so badly for these boys. Their story was more about friendship and loyalty. They worked together to survive and no one died.
Of course, the breakdown of society can happen even today with an economic downturn. For years now, people have been predicting an economic collapse in the US due to the huge debt level. If the US dollar ever takes a dive, there will be a global panic. The doomsayers maintain that massive unemployment would be the result and governments would no longer be able to pay their employees. Local communities would suffer because their tax base would disappear. They would no longer be able to pay their police departments, garbage disposal, and other services. People would take to the streets to protect themselves and fight over access to food and supplies. The 2020 coronavirus is bringing us closer to such a reality with the burgeoning debt levels in the US and the stress on the dollar.
My fourth novel Remembrance Man is now out on paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. This is a tale of murder, greed and deceit, and the breakdown of society. It is interesting to see how little progress civilized society has made in the face of pandemics. We deal with them no better than our grandparents did during the influenza outbreak of 1918 and the 19th century cholera epidemics.
I remember visiting the HMS Victory in Portsmouth as an English schoolboy. The Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson’s heroic demise had everything to attract the interest of young English boys. So it is not surprising that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Patrick O’Brian naval war novels about the adventures of Captain Aubrey and his surgeon friend, Dr Maturin. I recently finished the eighth in the series, The Ionian Mission, about Captain Aubrey’s service with the British squadron blockade of Toulon in 1813. To entertain the men on board Aubrey’s ship, the Worcester, an oratorio was organized using whatever musical talents were available among the crew. After a search, it was revealed that five young lads from Lancashire were word-perfect in Handel’s Messiah, having sung it numerous times in their homeland. O’Brian provides such a wonderful image of these poor lads on board a man-of-war during the Napoleonic wars:
They were poor thin little undernourished creatures with only a few blue teeth among them, though young: they had been taken up (by the press gang) for combining with others to ask for higher wages and sentenced to transportation; but as they were somewhat less criminal than those who had made the demand they were allowed to join the Navy instead. They had gained by the change, particularly as the Worcester was a comparatively humane ship; yet at first they were hardly aware of their happiness. The diet was more copious than any they had ever known. Six pounds of meat per week (though long preserved, bony and full of gristle), seven pounds of biscuits (though infested) would have filled them out in their youth, to say nothing of the seven gallons of beer in the Channel or seven pints of wine in the Mediterranean; but they had lived so long on bread, potatoes and tea that they could scarcely appreciate it, particularly as their nearly toothless gums could hardly mumble salt horse and biscuit with any profit. What is more, they were the very lowest form of life on board, landlubbers to the ultimate degree – had never seen even a duckpond in their lives – ignorant of everything and barely acknowledged as human by the older men-of-war’s men – objects to be attached to the end of a swab or a broom, occasionally allowed, under strict supervision, to lend their meagre weight in hauling in a rope. Yet after the first period of dazed and often seasick wretchedness they learnt to cut their beef right small with a purser’s jackknife and pound it with a marlin-spike; they learnt some of the ways of the ship; and their spirits rose wonderfully when they came to sing.
The O’Brian novels provide an extraordinary glance into our nautical past and are rich in imagery.
In my historical research for my upcoming novel “Remembrance Man”, I have come across several unique kinds of dwellings that existed back in 1832. I have always been interested in early North American architecture. I would often wonder how Southerners in the 19th century kept cool during their long hot summers. Today, of course, you have air-conditioning in every American building, so the architecture is not required to perform a cooling function. When you have a blackout for a week or two after a hurricane, well then you’ve got a real problem. Many modern buildings will quickly overheat and can even kill older residents who are sensitive to the heat and lack of air circulation. Often the windows in these buildings cannot be opened.
Evidently, 1950s style architecture in the US and Canada is grossly inadequate and not designed to keep the residents cool in the summer. In the South of France it can get up to forty degrees °C in the summer and many older houses were designed to combat extreme heat. In Bordeaux, I’ve seen long apartment dwellings with a central corridor extending from front to back to permit the breeze to cool down the building. You can see this by the design of the front doors which are often made of a metal frame with swing-out sections that can be opened at night to allow air to penetrate apartments.
Before air-conditioning, how did people keep cool? The ‘dogtrot’ or breezeway house was common in the Southern states in the 19th and 20th centuries. A dogtrot house consisted of two log cabins connected by a breezeway or ‘dogtrot’ under a common roof. The breezeway and open windows in the rooms allowed air currents to pull in cooler air into the living quarters before the existence of air-conditioning.
Another example of clever architecture is the shotgun house. These houses were very narrow with the front door leading into the living room, the bedrooms and the kitchen at the back. The rooms were lined up one behind the other. Early shotguns were not built with bathrooms, although they were often added to the kitchen in the back in later years. These houses were cheap to build and designed to allow air currents to cool down the residents during hot summers. It is believed that the shotgun house originated in New Orleans in the early 1800s and became popular after the American Civil war and up until the 1920s. The term shotgun may refer to the fact that if all the doors are open, you can fire a shotgun through the front door and the blast will fly cleanly out the back.
One cannot ignore the architecture of the plantation house or the antebellum home. The main characteristic of these houses were the huge pillars in the front, the balcony that ran along the outside edge of the house that created a shaded porch and sitting area, the huge windows and the big central entrance at the front and the back of the house. These houses were built for the comfort of the residents who could follow the shade on the balcony or the porch as the sun moved around the house. The large windows helped create air currents that cooled the house.
And finally, a very primitive kind of dwelling was the soddy or sod house whose walls were built with patches of sod cut in rectangular shapes and piled one on top of another to serve as walls. Sharecroppers would build these houses using whatever material they could find. Without wood, they would sometimes cut a wall into the side of a hill and use that as a foundation wall. This worked well on the windswept prairie. Sod houses required frequent maintenance due to rain damage. And finally, the thatched roof was common in parts of Western Canada including Manitoba. A thatched roof would often last longer than a roof made from oak shingles.
I’m coming, I’m coming the scourge of mankind,
I float on the waters, I ride on the wind,
Great hunger and squalor prepare my dread way,
In the homes of the wretched my sceptre I sway,
In filthy, damp alleys and courts I reign,
O’er the dark stagnant pool and putrid drain.
With the coronavirus sweeping around the world, past pandemics have taken on new interest. My novel Remembrance Man about the 1832 Cholera epidemic is in its final polish stage and will be out by the summer.
I found my research into the period of the early 19th century fascinating. There were a lot of things happening at the time: the development of railways, the Erie Canal, the industrial revolution, developments in medicine and science, and the Second Great Awakening. The Protestant revival movement with their camp meetings were popping across the US and in Great Britain. There was the famous Cane Ridge revival meeting in the summer of 1801, which was held in a log cabin church in the backwoods of Kentucky. Some 25,000 people were in attendance. The people came from all walks of life from around the US and convened in this tiny church in the woods.
In my novel, we have our own Methodist revival meeting in the woods. I was particularly interested in the mourner’s bench (or anxious bench) during camp meetings which was placed at the centre of the congregation adjacent to the pulpit in full view of everyone. This is where would-be converts would contemplate their decision for Christ. The mourner’s bench allowed for the dramatic conversion of sinners, including intense praying, exhortations by the preacher and other previously converted Christians, crying, singing, proclamations of guilt and shame, involuntary spasms, visions and trances. In the end, the camp meeting experience was both a personal journey from unbelief to faith and a public declaration of a commitment to change one’s life.
So it’s been a very pleasurable six months rewriting my original text for the Remembrance Man novel and doing the historical research.
In January 2019, the New Scientist in London announced that the US Army has solved the mystery around the identity of the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess. The article maintained that a blood sample was taken from Hess back in 1982 by US Army doctor Philip Pittman during a routine health check at Spandau Prison in Berlin. A pathologist mounted some of the blood on a microscope slide to perform a cell count and named the slide “Spandau #7”. It was hermetically sealed and kept for teaching purposes at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC.
This sounded very convincing almost 12 months ago, but has since been debunked by numerous sources. From the blood smear a molecular biologist at the University of Salzburg in Austria succeeded in extracting the DNA and soon the scientists were busy looking for a Hess family member after the son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess, had died. They turned to the discredited British historian, David Irving, who provided various phone numbers and from there, they were able to make a match with an unnamed Bavarian member of the Hess family.
What makes this match so suspect is the origin of the blood smear and the unnamed person who provided the Hess family DNA. Hugh Thomas, the author of “The Murder of Rudolf Hess”, wrote in February 2019 the following: “the decision of the Austrian researchers not to reveal either the genotype or haplotype of this DNA and to admit that their sample was for a time in the custody of the Hess family and delivered to the Austrian researchers by an unnamed member of that politically suspect family undermines the provenance of both samples.” The technician who did the work in the laboratory mentioned that the blood looked “remarkably fresh” for a 37-year old sample and had no trouble doing the DNA extraction.
It is highly unlikely that any American medical officer would be allowed to do a routine health check on prisoner #7 when all four nations involved in running Spandau were required to be present. A doctor for each of the four powers would have had to be in the room during any such routine health checkup. For a long time, the British government has had excellent DNA samples of Hess which were taken during his post-mortem examination in the UK back in the late 1980s. They could easily do these DNA tests and compare samples, but have refused to do so. There was never really any need for this bogus DNA confirmation from the Austrian research laboratory.
And finally, after all the medical evidence proving that the man in Spandau was an imposter, there was the surprising evidence provided by a retired Manchester orthodontist, Hans Eirew, who wrote in an email in February 2019 the following: “During 1950/51 I was the British Army dental officer at Berlin military hospital. One of my responsibilities was the dental care of the war criminals at Spandau jail. I had to extract a left upper molar for the very weird prisoner introduced as Rudolf Hess, at his insistence standing up and without pain killing injection. Later I had access to the full official Nazi party medical records for the real Rudolf Hess, going back to his gunshot wounds in WW1. They showed that he had lost his upper left molar teeth early and had an artificial metal bridge where I was deemed to have extracted a tooth. My suspicions were supported by the fact that the other prisoners appeared to have very little contact with No.7 Hess. I am in full support of Dr Hugh Thomas, who was then the most tested army gunshot expert with wide experience in Northern Ireland and who provided medical evidence that the man at Spandau was a “ringer’.”
So it appears that the Hess family or some other source is trying to manipulate the media with this highly suspect DNA study. As the author Joseph Farrell has suggested that “the Hess Mess doesn’t go away by simply waving the DNA wand.”
This week I have been working on my new book and, as usual, research is an important part of this work. The novel entitled “Remembrance Man” is about the cholera epidemic in 1832. Most of us don’t remember the great pandemics of previous centuries and how awful they were. For those of you living in Quebec, the ‘blue death’ as it was called killed some 3,000 people during the summer of 1832 in Quebec City. The population at the time was only about 20,000 people so 15% of the population fell victim to cholera in a very short period from June to September. A lot of them were immigrants arriving by the boatload (50,000 people arrived in the city that summer). Imagine the fear and the housing chaos.
A moving song
I recently discovered this wonderful song interpreted by Joan Baez entitled “Barbara Allen”:
“Barbara Allen” is a traditional Scottish ballad that later travelled to America where it became a popular folk song. It is referred to in the diary of Samuel Pepys in 1666 and is by far the most widely collected song in the English language with hundreds of versions sung over the years. The lyrics are as follows:
“Twas in the merry month of May
When green buds all were swelling,
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.
He sent his servant to the town
To the place where she was dwelling,
Saying you must come, to my master dear
If your name be Barbara Allen.
So slowly, slowly she got up
And slowly she drew nigh him,
And the only words to him did say
Young man I think you’re dying.
He turned his face unto the wall
And death was in him welling,
Goodbye, goodbye, to my friends all
Be good to Barbara Allen.
When he was dead and laid in grave
She heard the death bells knelling
And every stroke to her did say
Hard hearted Barbara Allen.
Oh mother, oh mother, go dig my grave
Make it both long and narrow,
Sweet William died of love for me
And I will die of sorrow.
And father, oh father, go dig my grave
Make it both long and narrow,
Sweet William died on yesterday
And I will die tomorrow.
Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William was buried beside her,
Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.
They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar.”
I was moved by this song as I am sure you will be too. Imagine two young people cut down by the ‘black death’ in the 17th century or by some other awful scourge.
During the parliamentary shenanigans in the UK this week, I was thinking about how Britain has always had a foothold in Europe and Europe in Britain. Brexit won’t change much of anything.
Remember the ‘Pale of Calais’ back in the fourteenth century. Calais and the surrounding region were controlled by British kings following the Battle of Crecy in 1346. Pale is an old English term meaning area or jurisdiction. So the Pale of Calais region was in English hands from 1346 until the Siege of Calais 1558 during the reign of Mary I (Mary Tudor or Bloody Mary as she was called by Protestant opponents). In England there was shock and disbelief at the loss of territory in Continental Europe. It is believed that Mary on her deathbed told her family: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart.”
Tell that to Boris Johnson now in the final throes of Brexit. Maybe he will find Calais ‘lying in his heart’ too. Teaching English to Quebec francophones has helped me appreciate the origin of certain words in the English language. For instance, the word ‘claret’ which in Britain designates a light Bordeaux red wine comes from an old French word ‘clairet’. The word reminds us that British monarchs controlled a rather large part of France from 1158 to 1453. It all started with the marriage of Henry II of England and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine in 1152. With Henry’s accession to the throne two years later, the Duchy of Aquitaine became the property of the English crown. Aquitaine was a huge piece of real estate stretching from the Loire to the Pyrenees. It was ruled from Poitiers and included the Duchy of Gascony until it shrank back to the Garonne with its capital in Bordeaux.
So back in the 12th century, the English starting consuming large quantities of Bordeaux wine called claret and the French in Aquitaine fell in love with English trade goods. The Gascons or residents of Aquitaine remained fiercely faithful to the kings of England and didn’t think of themselves as French at all. Many Gascons saw no benefit in French rule and thought it advantageous to be governed by a distant lord who didn’t interfere in their affairs. After 1451, when the French king Charles VII seized the Duchy, the Gascons with the support of an English expeditionary force rebelled against French rule declaring allegiance to the English king.
The English presence in Bordeaux lasted some 300 years while their occupation of Calais and its region another 200 years. No wonder England and France are so closely knit. Most of us know about Norman rule of Britain from 1066 on but few of us remember those lost years in Gascony. While French bureaucrats were counting cows and chickens in the muddy English countryside for the Domesday book for nigh on one hundred years, British nobility was cavorting about their estates totally inebriated from all that imported French wine for some three centuries. No wonder the British love the French.
This year I will be finishing up my new novel Remembrance Man by the end of January and will be working on a new script financed by the Canadian Media Fund. Thank you very much. It is not often I get paid to write.
In this case the script is entitled: Johnny Reb in Montreal. It tells the story of thirteen Confederate soldiers who go on trial in a Montreal courtroom in 1864, facing charges ranging from robbery and arson to homicide and threaten plans for the new Dominion of Canada. Some of you may have heard of the St. Alban’s attack. This is the story of the attack and the courtroom drama. I am a fast writer and I should complete a first draft sometime around next summer.
I am presently completing my book tour presentation for “Shipwrecked Lives” and will be in Ottawa on Oct. 16 before the Canadian Nordic Society. Working on the presentation, it is amazing how technology has been extremely useful with some exception in protecting us from collisions at sea. You may remember the US Navy ships, the SS Fitzgerald and the SS McCain, who trashed their ships in maritime accidents in 2017 that could have been avoided.
The American 7th fleet should really be called the ‘disaster fleet’ due to the incompetence and lack of training of their officers and technicians. The ships are under-manned and the training are lacking on these hugely expensive vessels. Trump threatened an attack on North Korea back in 2017, but I doubt the 7th fleet would have been very useful, a bit like sending the Keystone Cops to attack a highly militarized enemy.
I am back from the FIN Partners meetings in Halifax last week where I met a lot of producers and broadcasters interested in my project “An Absolute Secret.” Two solid days of meetings and buzz sessions. The co-production is advancing slowly, but it looks like it will be a three way co-pro with foreign partners.